There are times in every relationship when you feel stuck in some way. You may feel uncomfortable with something that just happened or something you have noticed in your partner or employee and not know how to talk about it. Perhaps you have tried talking about it in the past but it just seemed to make things worse. At times like these, there is a tendency to think that you either have to do this or do that, say this or say that and neither alternative feels easy or right.
For example, suppose you see that your partner is smoking more cigarettes than usual and it alarms you. If you bring this subject up, you may be perceived as nagging or controlling and get a very disagreeable reaction. If you say nothing, you might further internalize your upset then find that you start distancing yourself from your partner or perhaps making little comments or sighs that express your disapproval (even though you privately vowed not to). Here is where you may think, “I only have two choices here and both of them are difficult and/or unpleasant. I either tell my partner what’s bothering me or I just let it go.” Good luck, by the way, on just letting it go.
There is another alternative to this either/or dilemma. I have found that generally, when we have a problem, especially one where we feel stuck, if we can talk about how stuck we feel, people want to help us get un-stuck. You may not be able to give advice, control another person’s behavior, complain or persuade your partner to do something but…you can always talk about the bind that you are in. For some reason, people don’t offer a lot of defensiveness or resistance to your communication about how stuck you feel. In fact, they tend to become curious about what this bind is and how they might be able to help you out of it—even if the bind you are in is about them!
In the above example, you can start by saying, “Can I talk to you about something?” Wait to get their attention, then say, “I feel like I am in a bind and I don’t know how to get out of it.” Then stop and say no more. Your partner will probably say, “What do you mean?” or “What kind of bind are you in?” You can say, “I feel damned if I do and damned if I don’t.” They will probably say, “What are we talking about exactly?”
At this point, they are engaged and interested and you can explain the nature of the bind. “I see how much you are smoking and I’m afraid if I say something about it, you’ll think I’m trying to control you and you’ll react defensively. On the other hand, if I don’t say anything, I’m afraid I’ll just resent you or pull away or ambush you with some snide comment later. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to be controlling and I also can’t seem to let it go cause I’m concerned about you. So I feel stuck.” This will, more often than not, lead to a useful discussion and keep you connected as a team.
Talking about the bind that you are in is useful not just in partnerships but in every relationship. It establishes a safer context for conversation than just blurting out what is bothering you or trying to suppress yourself. It’s the middle ground between those two untenable alternatives. Over time, you will see it as a life line.